For a time almost beyond counting, there were only three people living at the Hempstock Farm: Ginny, her mother and daughter. Of course, to call Lettie her daughter and Old Mrs. Hempstock (as the village, later the town, called her) her mother was both overly simple and not quite a lie. But everyone knows a different truth and the truth that Ginny knew was that for many years it was only three in the old farmhouse on the end of the lane.
Except for those few and far between years when it wasn’t just three but as high as seven, when Ginny and her brothers lived with her mother and father, in a time more years ago than many in the town would even know to remember.
Hempstock women don’t need fathers in the purest biological sense, say true, yet if a man is your father because he makes you feel safe and protected and loved when you are young and small and growing, then the father of Ginny’s brothers was hers just the same.
Ginny remembered how happy she had been when her father would arrive home from work, how she would race down the stairs to be swept up into his arms. He was such a strong man, but still so careful as he tossed her laughing towards the sky. Hempstock men don’t stay, as a rule, but Ginny is still glad that her father held on long enough for Ginny to grow past the purest needing of him, so that his absence was only a dull ache inside, not the sharp pain that it could have been.
Just as her father left, her brothers drifted too. Her mother had always told her that it was in the nature of a Hempstock man to leave, the same thing that drew Ginny to the ocean and the land gave them dreams of other oceans, other lands. Now, of course, Ginny knew that she could choose to leave the farm, go find those wild lands and waters step in step with her brothers, but that itch that touched their feet never came. Ginny noticed as they look at the edges of the farm as confining rather than comforting, watched them talk about the world beyond as something brighter and more real than anything in sight. Ginny stayed at the farm and watched them go.
Carl left first, though he was nearly the youngest. He was always quickest to try something before his elder brothers, always last to come inside from exploring the unknown. The last Ginny had heard, he had found a steamer bound for Africa and his last postcard had mentioned beauties that would even overshadow the old country. Ginny doubted that last bit, but then when you’ve been away from the farm, the old country probably seems even older and more quaint than ever.
Perhaps because Carl had been so quick to leave, her older (truly oldest) brother David followed him out of town, but where Carl took to the water and found his own ocean, David took to the land, fixing things. Somewhere in the stretch of nothings in the California desert, you might find him with his dependable pickup truck and a smile. If you are lost, he will make you found. If you are wanting, he will make you whole.
John and Thomas, the twins, were born mere moments apart, John’s open-mouthed cry ending in Thomas’ equally outraged wail. Yet that was the first and last time they were so in concert—if John was north, Thomas was south, if John was dark, Thomas was light. So, true to form, after they left with the wandering look of a Hempstock man in their eyes, Thomas had sent letter after letter filled with news and questions and life, while the only news they got of John was when another of his brothers heard from a cousin who heard from another Hempstock out in the world. Ginny had heard that John had a family of girls who could tell your secrets by the slant of your smile, while Thomas had daughters who could dream another’s dreams, fill a stranger’s heads with truth or nonsense. Yet another story was that both men had died, one tragically, the other violently. The versions varied about which ending came to which. Everyone has their own version of the truth.
Peter, the youngest of them all, stayed when Carl left, was a lanky teen when David took to wandering and was nearly a grown man himself when John and Thomas made their way from the farm. Yet, he stayed still as the years passed, as Ginny grew from a girl who dreamed of the truths in the world to a mother who taught those truths to a daughter. Lettie, who was forever in the shadow of her Uncle Peter, small feet stumbling to fit his lengthening stride over the grounds of the farm, from barn to house and back.
In fact, Peter was there for so long that Ginny started to disbelieve the stories of the wandering Hempstock men and think that maybe this time, one would stay. They would be four; a nicely even number that made corners stand true and angles lie quiet. Lettie grew older, no longer the silent toddler but now a chattering child, full of smiles and the same sharp knowings that Old Mrs. Hempstock had, filled with a depth and a playfulness that was all her own.
Perhaps Peter had feared to tell her when he began to think of leaving, because unlike her other brothers, there was no warning, no slow change in his manner or new wondering look in his eyes. He was simply gone early one morning.
Ginny had been in the barn, holding court with the warm press of cows as she milked them in methodical order, soothing this one with a quiet word, brushing a hand against another’s back with a fond smile. These cows were the children upon children of the cows from her childhood, and while she loved the farm from boards to branches, the barn was always the one that made her feel the most at home.
Later, she would realize that the slow drawl of a motor past the farmhouse was a taxi carrying Peter away, shrinking their number down to three—the babe, the lady, the crone—but in that moment she was merely concerned with the heat of the cow’s udders in her hands as she slowly and carefully filled a bucket with warm, fresh milk, while keeping an ear listening for cheerful chatter from the farmhouse that meant that Lettie was awake and greeting the day.